The Other Side of the Dressing Room: 7 Lessons on Body Image from a Retail Worker’s Perspective
Written by Megan Allegretti, MA, LPC
My name is Megan Allegretti, and I am a counselor at OakHeart, Center for Counseling. I specializes in working with individuals who experience distorted eating patterns. Before becoming a mental health provider I worked in different fields, including a retail clothing store.
It’s wild to look back through the lens of understanding Eating Disorders and see how misleading the retail clothing industry can be, and is designed to be. I worked with and sold clothes to predominantly female identifying individuals. I know that female identifying individuals are not the only ones who experience unrealistic messages and pressures around body image. Diet culture does not discriminate. But it is important to note the lens through which I am writing through.
Here are seven lessons on body image I learned from working retail:
1) Mannequins Lie
Mannequins are not designed to represent the bodies of the people who will be purchasing the items! They are designed to present the clothing and perpetuate an image of fiercely unrealistic body types and diet culture. Guess what: most people are not 6 ft tall and don't exist exclusively in nonchalant modeling positions. And the only way those clothes fall perfectly on the mannequin is because of an absurd amount of tucking, pinning, and shape shifting to the garment itself. It was truly more of an art piece with fabric as the medium, not accurately reflecting how the clothing was created or could possibly be worn on bodies. I would hear women want to look like the mannequins and blame themselves for not looking the same, when that was an unrealistic expectation to begin with. This illusion fueled individuals to blame themselves for not looking a certain way or having a very specific body structure.
2) Size Does Not Mean S**t
The specific store that I worked for showcased many different designers. I would try on clothing that were new to the store so I would know how to communicate them to the customers. Depending on who was making the product my size would range SIX sizes! Let that set in- six sizes difference between different designers. And it was not my body that was changing shape. I noticed some people had strong reactions when having to shift sizes based on designers. Some were either happy that they were going down a size, or upset going up, perpetuating fat phobia that is marketed to us from diet culture! Your body, and happiness within your skin is not defined by how others make their clothing. What the size on the label says does not measure your worth.
3) Privilege Comes to Smaller Bodied Individuals
Let’s acknowledge the privilege that comes to people who live in smaller bodies. They are marketed clothing to, they are showcased in ads for the clothing, they are photographed wearing the clothing, the mannequins in the stores most represent their bodies, and designers make more options of clothing for them. I know this list can go on even further. More recently there have been initiatives to stop photoshopping models, so we as the consumer have a more reasonable expectation for what clothing looks like on real people. There have been more size inclusive mannequins used to promote body sizes that represent the population more accurately. The fashion industry started including more inclusive size ranges when making clothing. We are seeing a shift in inclusion, and that should be celebrated! But it is also acceptable to recognize there is a lasting impact on the privilege that was already set in place. Time and continued changes to the industry standards are important in dismantling one specific idealized body image.
4) Clothing Is A Form of Self Expression
Clothing can be the medium of expression for who you are! There is so much room for creativity that comes with presenting yourself in an authentic way. I saw many customers who struggled when an ‘on trend’ style was looking different on their body than what they had in their head. What I noticed was it was because that was not really their style, it was not in-line with who they were. They were playing into what they thought they should be wearing, versus what they actually wanted to wear. When I saw people who dressed authentically to their style it was remarkable to see how different they carried themselves in the world.
5) Buy for where Your Body Is Now
I cannot even begin to tell you about the amount of times I would be working with someone who would purchase a size of clothing that was not fitting their body at that moment. And I am guilty of previously engaging in this behavior too! You have a ‘goal piece’ of clothing, and this item is your motivation to change your current body shape. This is not helpful! Clothing should not be a punishment for you. By buying clothes that do not fit properly it dismantles accepting and appreciating your body. If the size of your clothing upsets you, cut out the tag and you do not have to look at it. It is so much nicer on your body to put it in clothes that fit it, and you feel comfortable in.
6) Comments on Expressions Versus Fit
There is so much emphasis on women to look a certain way, based on what diet culture markets to us. This leads to comments on how a body looks and not how someone feels in the clothing. I heard a multitude of unhealthy body comparisons speak in the dressing room. How negative it was that their bodies looked different than the unrealistic one that is marketed to us. I offer the following as a shift in perspective: instead of commenting on how you look in the clothing, comment on how you feel wearing the clothes. How happy, comfortable, empowered, or authentic you feel in the clothing. This small change can shift the focus off how we ‘should’ look versus how we feel in clothing.
7) You Are Worth More Than Your Clothes
We have come so far in the world of body positivity, but we still have a long way to go. Remember that your clothes are there to make you feel better about yourself, and if they are not fitting or bringing negative thoughts out, get rid of them. You are worth so much more than your clothes. Your worth comes from who you are and not how you look. Diet culture likes to place it the other way around to sell us products we don’t need. But we don’t have to listen to those messages. You are worthy exactly where you are at, and in the body you are in.
These are some of the lessons that I learned about body image from working retail. I thought that it would be good to share them with you this week as we end National Eating Disorder Awareness week. Body image is just one component of distorted eating patterns. By becoming aware of the unhealthy messages around body image that are portrayed to us, we can then challenge our own unhealthy thoughts and the culture around one specific idealized body shape. My goal for you is to treat your body like a home. Create a place for you that feels comfortable, and is an expression of who you are.
If you or someone you love is struggling with body image concerns and could benefit from therapy, please call 630-570-0050 or email us at Contact.OH@OakHeartCenter.com.